There is no cure for the human condition: life is hard. But MIT philosophy professor Kieran Setiya believes philosophy can help. In this conversation with Anil Gomes, Setiya will offer us a map for navigating rough terrain, from personal trauma to the injustice and absurdity of the world, showing how the tools of philosophy can help us find our way. Drawing on ancient and modern philosophy as well as fiction, history, memoir, film, comedy, social science, and stories from his own experience, Setiya asks how we can weather life’s adversities, finding hope and living well when life is hard.
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ANIL GOMES: I thought we might start just with the story of your book Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way. There’s a lovely bit in the book where you express some wariness about narrative, or at least are kind of attentive to the dangers of narrative. But I wonder whether you have a narrative about the genesis of the book, how you came to be in a position to write this book. It’s not the kind of normal book that an academic philosopher might be expected to write. Do you have a story about how you ended up here?
KIERAN SETIYA: It’s true that in the book I argue that we shouldn’t think of our lives in terms of simple linear narratives heading toward a certain kind of goal, and that if we do so we create the risk that we will be defined by a project at which we could fail and then would be failures. So by rights I should resist this request! But I can say something about it.
I started out with no particular intention to write for an audience other than academics, and if you look at my earlier work in philosophy, I don’t think it’s false modesty to say that no one would have predicted that I was going to write for anyone other than the inside crowd of academics. My writing was not notably accessible. Then, being a driven academic, I had a midlife crisis. I had a crisis about my career in particular, and whether I wanted to keep doing philosophy, and why I was doing it, and a kind of sense of hollowness about it. And I thought, well, this is a question about how to live, and I’m a philosopher who works on the question of how to live, so I should be able to figure this out. I wrote an academic article about my midlife crisis, and thought it was helpful, so maybe I should try to write about this for a wider audience. So I wrote Midlife, and I thought at that point, well that’s it. I’ve written the book I was going to write for non-philosophers, and I’m now reconciled to my career. I’ll get back to work and do my job.
Unexpectedly, though, I found myself with a taste for writing for non-academic audiences, a taste for trying to make philosophy more accessible. And so the book was an attempt to take a kind of wider view than the midlife of the human condition and say something about the many hardships of life. I started writing it before the pandemic, but it did take on a certain urgency during the pandemic, which is when I wrote the bulk of it, at a point when loneliness, grief, injustice, inequality, the faltering of democracy, all of these things seemed to be crowding in on me, as they were crowding in on other people I knew. It seemed that this was a good time to try to think about how philosophy could be adapted to address them.
AG: At times you describe the book as a kind of self-help book, and I’m wondering how seriously you take that description. Do you think of what you’ve written as a self-help book? Or are we meant to take that description slightly ironically?
KS: Well, in Midlife it was slightly tongue-in-cheek in that there I kind of enjoyed playing with the form. The whole idea of declaring oneself to be having a midlife crisis I found quite entertaining, and it gave me a kind of comic way to talk about what was actually going on in my life, which was in fact quite stressful. I’d spent twenty years aspiring to this career, and suddenly I had what I was supposed to have wanted and thought, Oh my God, what’s the point of all this? So there I think I embraced it with a certain kind of irony.
Since then I’ve been thinking more seriously about the relationship between philosophy and self-help, partly because the question of whether philosophy can be helpful and how it can be helpful is pressing for me. I would say I’m ambivalent about that framing. I do think moral philosophy and ethics can help to make people’s lives better. But the self-help framing can lead to false expectations. I joke in the book that you might expect that I’m going to tell you how to succeed without even trying, or I’m going to have tips for never having anyone break up with you, and I don’t have that kind of self-help. But I do think philosophical reflection can and should help us to live better lives.
AG: There is a rich history to the idea that philosophy is deeply connected with not necessarily self-help or therapy but ways one might make one’s life better, and that it has a practical effect on how you go about living your life.
KS: The history is complicated. But my sense is that the decisive breaks start to happen quite late in the history of philosophy. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the lines between philosophy and what we would now think of as self-help—works designed to enrich your life and help you be a better person—were nonexistent. And then in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, you get this split as philosophy becomes more detached.
Sadly one of my heroes, David Hume, is—I don’t know about a villain, but he’s a significant figure here. There’s this wonderful discussion toward the end of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature where he imagines someone complaining that he has not painted virtue in bright enough colors, and he responds that we’ve got to distinguish between the job of the anatomist and the job of the painter. My job as a philosopher is like that of an anatomist. I’ve got to carve up the ethical life, and if it looks kind of gross, well, too bad. This is my job. The job of the painter is something rather different, and, Hume being Hume, his job of anatomy actually does make the life of virtue look more attractive. But those are supposed to be two quite distinct job descriptions.
In the aftermath of the increasing professionalization of philosophy over the next two centuries, there has come to be a split between moral philosophy and self-help, even the kind of moral philosophy that is explicitly practical. It’s often quite narrowly morally focused, so it’s about what are your obligations to animals, or what’s the correct theory of justice, and it’s often quite theoretical. So there’s often a real disconnect between professional philosophy and conversations about ethics. I really was having conversations with friends about ethics that touched on what I was doing in philosophy. But with friends, the questions were, I’m having trouble in this friendship, or I was working on this for years and it’s completely fallen apart. I’m a total failure. Or my parents are really sick, and I’m worried I’m not going to see them during the pandemic, and they’re going to die. These were all questions about how to live. But there was a gap between those questions and what I was used to talking about as an academic philosopher. And the book is an attempt to bridge that gap—to re-bridge that gap, I suppose.
AG: I wonder if you have views about who needs the help that you provide in the book. If you think about self-help books, they’re targeted particular audiences, right? How to quit smoking in ten weeks, that sort of thing. But some of the problems that you’re addressing in the book are endemic to the human condition, right? There are some things which befall us simply by virtue of being human, or maybe just by virtue of being finite rational beings. Maybe if there were Martians who came down, so long as they were finite and rational, they would be beset by the same problems that you talk about in the book. So do you have a sense of who has these problems? Are they universal, or are they specific to particular individuals?
KS: That’s a good question. It’s partly about topic and partly about methods. I think mortality and grief are not going away, and love, which is in some ways connected with grief, I hope is not going away. People sometimes have fantasies of ending mortality by uploading ourselves into computers, and I’m very skeptical about the possibility of that. I think we’re stuck with our mortality, and we’re stuck with loss as part of the human condition. There are other kinds of failure or loneliness that people deal with more or less. So there’s some variation there. What I hope is that enough of what I say about these topics is generalizable so that people can connect it with their own lives. But there is a way in which it’s about your own life.
There’s a shift in the book away from the idea of philosophy as primarily an argumentative theoretical enterprise. For Iris Murdoch, a central part of ethical reflection is just finding the right words to describe what’s happening to you and what is happening to the people around you and what is happening in the world. That can seem very different from abstract theory construction. And it is in some ways different. But I think philosophy should embrace both and see continuities between them.
I think philosophy can address these questions by providing concepts with which to describe what people are going through, and then people can grab onto those concepts and use them, and some will really fit your situation and some won’t. In a way, ideally what I would write is a completely personalized, bespoke book. But obviously I can’t do that, so one way in which I try to get around that is to use myself as an example. And the point of that is not that my life is especially interesting. I think it’s representative in good and bad ways. But the thought is that I can show how using philosophical concepts that come from examining pain or loneliness and friendship and the value of human life can be applied to my own life, and then hopefully other people will get a sense of how to philosophize their lives in a way that could be useful to them. The dream would be you talk about it with people who actually know you, and then you can put together the detailed personal knowledge of your circumstance that I don’t have with whatever philosophy I can bring to bear in this more detached way.
AG: I wonder whether you’re going to resist this way of putting it, but let me try it out to see what you think. Something which is striking about the Cogito and the Meditations is that it has to be done in the first person. I can read the book, but if I read the book and say, Descartes thinks, therefore a Descartes exists, it’s gone wrong somewhere. You have to do it for yourself. So is the thought that the kind of therapeutic aspect of philosophy that you’re doing is not something where I could just pick it up and read through and learn from it, as if Kieran has given me some testimony, and now I can take it and apply it to my own lives. Instead I have to do it for myself in the first person in order to really get the benefits from philosophy helping in this kind of way.
KS: Basically yes. I mean there are hard questions about exactly why it has to be in the first person in this way. But it reminds me of an anecdote about how unlikely it was that I would be someone who would do this. I remember in grad school when I took my general exams, and the topic was ethics and practical reason. And I did well, but the examiner’s report had this phrase that I’ve never forgotten, which was, These ideas do not seem to have been tested in the crucible of direct moral experience. At the time I was twenty-one years old, and my friends and I rolled our eyes and made fun of it. But there was a way in which this was entirely right. Whatever I was doing right or wrong, I had not really integrated it with my own moral experience. Likewise for a reader of a book like mine, there’s a way in which you can’t exactly take it on trust. If I describe something in my life and say this philosophical framework helped make sense of it, then you have to think, Does that ring true? and think through your own life through that lens. And I hope often enough I’m onto something, and it will be useful. But what I would love is for people to engage with these philosophical questions in the first person. And to be honest, I think there’s a sense in which if they’re not, if you don’t engage them in that way, it’s not really a practical enterprise. It would just be a kind of object of curiosity, and you wouldn’t have fully bridged the gap between philosophy and self-help or living well.
AG: In some ways you can think of the Meditations as a kind of therapeutic exercise, right? One’s working through these meditative exercises in order to steer you away from the senses to the glory of God, or whatever.
KS: Right. That’s an interesting case because on the one hand, it’s the kind of paradigm of apodictic argument. I’m going to prove everything from the ground up. It’s hard-edged analytic thinking. On the other hand, it is also an intellectual memoir of someone’s crisis experience while stuck in a stove room trying to stay warm and feeling filled with these terrors of being deceived. So it brings the two into conjunction.
AG: And just like you writing your book during the pandemic, there’s a kind of isolation which is enforced upon Descartes.
KS: Right, right.
AG: The personal aspect of the book is the biggest difference from writing straightforward academic philosophy. Your experience of living with chronic pain is where that really comes out. I’m interested in how it felt to write about chronic pain and how philosophy helped you through that experience.
KS: It’s a strange thing to write about it. I have chronic pelvic pain. I’ve had it since I was twenty-seven. I wasn’t really diagnosed until many years later, although the diagnosis involved putting together three words that describe the symptom and saying we don’t really know. We have no idea what to do about this. It’s not the most dignified form of chronic illness you can have, and it’s not one that I’ve really talked about with very many people. I’ve been very private about it. A few people know. So there’s something quite bizarre for me now about going from a situation where a tiny handful of people knew this about me to a situation where you can now just read about it in a book. I found that very helpful. And philosophy is part of this, but there’s also, I think, just a kind of overcoming of isolation in communicating about things like this. Every time I talk to a group of people about it now, there’s several other people who have some kind of chronic illness. So there’s a solidarity and connection that comes from just writing about it.
Philosophy specifically really helped me understand some of the ways in which my pain is hard. The question, Why is pain bad? can seem like a fairly bad question. I mean, pain is bad. If anything is bad, pain is bad. There’s not a lot to say. But I actually think there’s quite a lot to say about why pain is bad. Part of it has to do with the way in which it disrupts our normally transparent relationship to our own bodies—that you can’t experience through your body other people in the world, because your body is taking up distracting attention. And so it’s not just bad in itself, but it gets in the way of other good things, of real engagement. Another way in which chronic pain is bad that philosophy can illuminate is the way in which it’s not—if it was just a series of isolated episodes, it would be much less problematic. It’s the anticipation and anxiety that I think make it much more than that and more difficult than that.
That has practical implications about how to try to live with chronic pain. A lot of people have versions of this folk wisdom which has to do with taking it one day at a time. But I think there’s a real philosophical foundation for why that is the right way to approach this kind of condition, to think to yourself, actually you can have a pretty good day while being in physical discomfort. And it is always just one day after another. So I think a lot of it is deeper understanding, and some of it is communication and drawing attention to invisible illness and feeling like I’m doing something to generate compassion and space for other people.
And then there’s something else that I really cannot put my finger on about how having written it down and exteriorized it is very helpful. It reminds me of this thing we used to do with my kids, when they would perseverate about something. We would have them write it down on a piece of paper, what they were worried about, and then crumple it up and throw it in the trash. And I’m not suggesting you should crumple up my book and throw it in the trash. But for me, now that I have externalized it—I don’t fully understand why that is so helpful, and maybe that’s another project. Next project is why exactly does this transition from thought to language in this way change one’s experience so dramatically? But I think it has changed my experience.
AG: For those who’ve not read the book yet, you start with pain. And one thing I like about that is that in some ways it’s the hardest case to make, a case for philosophy having a kind of therapeutic role. I mean, one can see in the abstract why philosophy might help if you’re worried about the absurdity of life, but for pain your thought is to go to painkillers and anti-inflammatories and stuff. You’ve talked a moment ago about the isolating effect of pain, that it not only separates you from others, but it can separate you from yourself at different times. Did you find the philosophical understanding of the nature of pain made it less isolating? Or was it particularly the process of writing it down and sharing with others? How much of it is the finding new words to describe it? And how much of it is the communication? Or perhaps those can’t be separated.
KS: Well I think it can’t quite be the communication, because the book isn’t out yet. Only a handful of people have read it. Or rather if it’s communication, it’s sort of proleptic or anticipatory because I do like it when people respond, I like it when people share their own experiences with pain. OK, that sounds wrong! I appreciate when people confide now. But there hasn’t been a lot of that yet. So it’s something that’s happening more internally.
One of the threads of that discussion is that philosophers often exaggerate the contrasts between the structure of concern for other people and the structure of self-concern. And I found it illuminating and also, in some ways, consoling to start to realize how similar the nature of my relationship of self-compassion—or just worrying about my past and future self—how similar that was structurally to the way in which concern for other people operates. The idea that your own suffering can be a source of compassion is not a new idea. But I felt like I began to understand that better and feel secure in the idea that that wasn’t BS, that there was something to it through the philosophical reflection I was doing on my experience of pain. And that was definitely very helpful. So I think often what I got out of this was a sense that I knew what was going on, and that at least I knew what was going on better than I had before. For me, at least, that was helpful. Often it’s the sense of being lost and confused that adds to the suffering and difficulty of life.
AG: That brings us to relationships with others more generally, which is also a big theme of the book, and the role that this kind of Murdochian idea of finding the right words to describe our experiences can actually play a role when thinking about injustice. So I mean here’s one way of thinking how philosophy might help with injustice. You might think philosophy’s role is to tell us what the ideal situation looks like, what the just society looks like. And then we can make the kind of moves that we need to do to get there. But philosophy’s role is just showing us what the best or just state looks like. And that’s not the view you want. Right? So you want to have a different way in which philosophy can help us deal with injustice.
KS: No, that’s right. There’s this idea that the role of political philosophy is to describe the ideal state, which goes back to Plato’s Republic. But it survives in John Rawls, who’s in a way the most influential contemporary-ish political philosopher, this idea that we should describe what he calls a realistic utopia. There’s been a lot of pushback against that in political philosophy. There’s this debate about ideal versus nonideal theory. There’s a lovely article by Amaryta Sen where he’s complaining about the idea that a portrait of the ideal is actually going to help us deal with injustice here and now. And he says something like, the fact that the Mona Lisa is the greatest painting doesn’t tell you how this Van Gogh compares to this Gauguin. It doesn’t give you a pathway. I think that is right. We don’t get as much guidance from ideal political philosophy as we might want, and we actually don’t need it because we’re very often much better at just recognizing injustice in the here and now than we are at coming up with pictures of what an ideal would be. It’s often hugely speculative.
Murdoch herself wasn’t really that interested in political philosophy, or at least she said much less about it, but one way in which you could adapt to political philosophy her idea that coming up with the right concepts and descriptions is a central philosophical task is to think about people in political philosophy who have engaged in conceptual innovation, who have tried to come up with concepts that help make sense of social reality in new ways.
One example of this is the idea of structural injustice. This was developed by the political theorist Iris Marion Young, who died tragically young of cancer. It’s a name for the way in which injustice can arise from systemic interactions that don’t necessarily involve unjust individuals or unjust policies, but nevertheless interactively they can create all kinds of injustice. That concept enables us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see, and also to see them correctly, to detach them from questions of blame about particular individuals, and to reframe things in terms of how do we change a system, and what are our responsibilities with respect to that system? I think of that work in political philosophy as consonant with the kind of approach that Murdoch takes to philosophy in general.
AG: Do you worry that this is all just description at the end of the day? Whereas the point is to change the world. There can be a kind of Murdochian position in politics where it’s just about coming up with new ways to describe what’s going on. But we don’t actually go out and do anything which is going to make a difference. Or do you think that there’s something more practical about the coming up with new ways of thinking?
KS: I don’t think that new ways of thinking are the end of it, but I do think they help you to describe what action might look like. Here’s an example of that. Right now there’s this great fashion for effective altruism, and I recently wrote a review in Boston Review about one offshoot of this, which is longtermism. Effective altruism is a complicated thing, but one thing to say about the way it frames what ethics is about and what our responsibilities are is that it focuses on individual action, not political action, and it focuses on charity, not justice. It’s about helping those in need. Effective altruists have practical advice along the lines of giving 10 percent of your income to charity.
I think that’s not the right way to frame things. I think we should be looking to politics, and we should be thinking less in terms of mere altruism or charity and more in terms of our complicity with and involvement in structures of injustice. Acting on climate change is not a matter of charity. The United States and Europe have played a much larger role in causing this problem than the people who are going to be most affected by it. And they caused harm for their own benefit. It’s paradigmatically unjust. It happened at a structural collective level, but it’s injustice. And we’re involved—we’re caught up in that as individuals.
What can we do? We’ve got a description of what’s going on, but it does give you a suggestion of what action would look like. Action has to look like looking at the collective causes and engaging in collective action to change them. That might be voting. But often it’s going to involve local groups you can be part of. So for me, this was Fossil Free MIT. But you know, it might be the company you work for or the town you live in. The conceptual reframing of this in terms of structural injustice by itself isn’t a practical solution, but I think it really does point you in the direction of certain kinds of action rather than others, and helps you figure out what taking responsibility might look like.
AG: That brings us back to this theme of description vis-à-vis Murdoch. One picture of process that you instantiate in the book is radically non-conservative. There’s a kind of opening up of new ways of thinking and encouraging us to go out and find new ways to describe our experience or life. But another way of thinking about it is much more conservative. We’re bound in some ways because any revisionary, as opposed to descriptive, way of describing things won’t necessarily answer to our lives as we live them now. There’s a way in which we’re blocking ourselves off from new ways of thinking.
P.F Strawson has this description in his book Individuals (1959) between revisionary and descriptive metaphysics: metaphysics which aims to describe how things are, and then revisionary ones where you’re coming up with new concepts for ways of describing how things are. Do you think of what you’re doing as radically non-conservative or as bound in any ways by the ways we have of thinking already?
KS: That’s a very good and very hard question. I think I haven’t asked it to myself in those terms at all, and when I do, my initial instinct is to say that describing actual reality is a much less conservative task than it might seem because actually describing what’s going on involves getting over layers of ideology that obfuscate what’s actually going on. Saying what’s really happening is incredibly hard. One example I use in the book is how we judge ourselves as failures or successes by the standards of wealth creation. Those standards are very hard to shake off. So I’m not sure in the end that that kind of descriptive project won’t end up being quite radical.
On the topic of applying Murdoch’s ideas to politics, she was very inspired by Simone Weil who was politically both an activist and a kind of revolutionary. And there’s a wonderful passage in Simone Weil where she says, “To clarify thought, to discredit the intrinsically meaningless words, and to define the use of others by precise analysis—to do this, strange though it may appear, might be a way of saving human lives.” That captures this thought that what seems like a modest project of conceptual analysis might itself lead you to radically overthrow how we ordinarily describe our political and social surroundings and could be much more radical and revolutionary than it seems. So I guess I’m holding out hope for the idea that if we start conservative, we may end up revolutionary despite ourselves.
AG: And that’s a lovely note to end our bit of the conversation on, because we’ve got questions which I want to get to. A question from Joanna says that self-compassion is generally accepted as beneficial, but might there be some benefit to self-pity as well? That’s from a fellow chronic pain sufferer.
KS: I love this question because I had a certain recoil at the idea of self-compassion on exactly these lines. I’m not quite sure why pity gets such a bad rap. I suppose the complaint about pity is that it’s patronizing. But I don’t worry so much about patronizing myself as I might about patronizing someone else. So I’ve always felt kind of a healthy degree of self-pity for my own situation. So yeah, I like that idea, and I share it, and also solidarity with Joanna.
The statistic is that 20–40 percent of people deal with some form of chronic illness, and when you know that you realize that in any given room, there are many people—whom you may have known for years—who have never talked about whatever they’re going through. So I don’t feel any hostility to the idea of pity.
AG: Alice asks about Iris Murdoch. How did writing this book in relation to your own experience change your understanding, if at all, of Murdoch’s notion of unselfing and her various influences of this notion, Simone Weil, Burkus, and so on.
KS: Another great question. I’ve always had an uneasy relationship to Murdoch in that I’ve written about Murdoch interpretively, and I’ve admired her and been very moved by her work since I first knew it. But I’ve never really been able to figure out how to integrate her views with what my views are, at least according to the things I’ve published about the kinds of questions she wrote about. I’ve always felt like the teeth don’t quite align. With this book, I felt like the shift in mode to something more personal and memoirish was the way of integrating Murdoch into what I was doing. There is something about the idea of unselfing that I probably don’t quite get my head around. Murdoch starts with the idea to just describe the world around you, very modest—like, the mother-in-law has to describe her daughter-in-law more accurately. But where this is going is that radical kind of self-abnegation—unselfing—and crushing of the ego is supposed to emerge from this, and I don’t quite know what to make of that. Like how radically altruistic and selfless does she want us to be? And how exactly does that emerge from the focus on describing the world around us? So I think I’m closer to channeling what Murdoch’s philosophical work might have, but that aspect of it I don’t quite know how to figure out.
AG: Murdoch gives us the barriers to coming up with new descriptions. So it’s not just that we have to describe, but there are things which get in our way—the fat, relentless ego and social neuroses and so on. What is it you think stops us from coming up with the right descriptions for pain, for loneliness, for grief, for injustice, and so on?
KS: Well, that’s a very helpful reframing. My ego is as fat and relentless as anyone’s, so I’m sure it’s getting in the way much of the time. But I do think this is a point where introducing the idea of ideology critique or ideas from the Frankfurt School is helpful in a way that I don’t know that Murdoch ever really quite does. What I’m thinking here is that there are received ways of understanding and describing your own experience that we get, that we’re socially inculcated in, and often they are themselves involved in structural injustice, they’re ways of thinking about oneself that occlude possibility or make us think the right way to deal with this is as an individual, not by changing society, or, well, I’m a failure. I need to work harder. Rather than ask questions about why my sense of success is being constructed financially in the first place. In fact, why is anyone constructing terms in which my life can be a success or a failure at all?
One of the major obstacles to describing what’s going on with ourselves in ways that can be liberating is ideological. And so that is, I suppose, a slightly different way to think about what this project might look like than Murdoch did. And that might suggest that the unselfing part of it is only one aspect. You know, you can get over yourself, but you also need to get over the ideologies that make it very hard to see yourself and your place in society in an accurate way.
AG: Dave asks about method. Could you say something about how you see philosophy and contemplative spirituality as the same or different? How do you think about contemplation and Buddhist traditions and other kind of way of life traditions in relation to philosophy?
KS: I think of myself as a fellow traveler, but I think it’s much easier for me to articulate how my way of thinking about ethics is continuous with self-help. That’s to say how it’s supposed to reframe your perspective on your life in a way that’s helpful, then to connect it to the idea of itself being a way of life, because stoicism is contemporary, is going through a kind of contemporary Renaissance, and it has much to offer. I have some criticisms of it in the book. But one way in which I can see the attraction is, there’s stuff you’re supposed to do. There’s a bunch of exercises that you can do in the morning and in the evening, and then there’s a bunch of social networks in which people are doing these exercises, and you can be part of that. And what I’m suggesting doesn’t quite have that. And same with Buddhism. There are practices of meditation and so on, and there’s a social dimension to it. I do not have a following like that, but nor do I really aspire to have a following like that. What I’m doing is much more addressed to someone as an individual and less a suggestion of a way of life. But when I try to imagine what it would be like to put this into practice, it does go back to something that we touched on earlier, which is, ideally, the people who can help you with your own life are people who know you. And that might be you, and it might be friends, or it might be family. The dream outcome of a book like this would be people in a book club sitting around and saying, OK, he says that loneliness is like this, but for me it was like this. How was it for you? And actually talking about it. And insofar as there’s a way of life, it will be the way of life of doing philosophy for yourself in a way that this book provides a model for in which I’m the test subject.
AG: Elizabeth asks whether there’s a dialectic between seeking our healing through knowledge and truth, and ultimately finding healing through fiction and stories that resolve in a metaphorical truth. When we talked about pain you were emphasizing how an understanding of pain was what helped you through it. But what role do you think fiction and stories can play in this process?
KS: I’m wary of certain kinds of stories. I’m wary of the way of storytelling in which one approaches one’s own life as if you’re the hero of your Hollywood movie. And there should be a big kind of quest defining it, and you’re going to be a success or a failure. That way of narrating one’s own life I find limiting and risky and distorting, because it blinkers you to the breadth and wealth of things going on in life.
On the other hand, one way to react to that is to say not all stories are dangerous, but why do stories have to take this limited form? There’s a wonderful book by an author and critic, Jane Allison, called Meander, Spiral, Explode (2019), which is about nonlinear storytelling. I think expanding our sense of what kind of stories we tell and how we tell them can help storytelling to be less risky and also more exciting and more empowering. Then there’s this question of how exactly that relates to telling the truth, and I’m not I think convinced that the kind of stories and metaphors that we might guide our lives by, even when they’re highly figurative, are not capable of being true. I think that sometimes the best way we have to express something that really is a truth about our experience is through a metaphor. So once we’ve cleared storytelling of the strictures of linear narrative, I think maybe it doesn’t have to contrast with knowledge and truth in the kind of way that would force us to decide.
AG: Do you think that philosophy is just one way in which people can deal with these problems, and maybe fiction is another way? Or are you thinking that philosophy is uniquely well placed to help us with some of these problems? Or it’s just one tool amongst many that people might reach for?
KS: In terms of expanding one’s conception of what philosophy is—the ethical reflection in which you just try to describe what’s going on, I say let’s count that as philosophical. Ss that the lines between philosophy and other kinds of interpretive work are less clear. In the book I get a lot out of Alphonse Daudet’s memoir of being in pain, of syphilitic pain, and I get a lot out of Tig Notaro’s stand-up comedy about grief, and I get a lot out of a wonderful novel by B. S. Johnson called The Unfortunates (1969), which is also about grief. And there’s discussions of Groundhog Day, the movie. I’m constantly drawing on things that are not officially philosophy, because often I think what they’re doing is not that different from what I’m doing. It’s not that these are toy examples, and then I say, Now I’ll do the philosophy. It’s more that I think they’re providing the descriptions we can now carry over into our own lives. The sources I’m drawing on might be a bit different, but I’m often finding myself reading fiction or memoir as philosophy in this more expansive understanding of philosophy. In a way my answer is, Do we have to choose? It’s all the same. And there’s a risk here, I suppose, that the idea of philosophy is going to get watered down or washed out into just any attempt to reflect on our lives. But I suppose I won’t be too upset if we start using philosophy in this expansive way, where anyone who’s seriously trying to reflect on how to live counts as doing philosophy, whatever the resources they’re drawing on. I would prefer that to the version in which only people who have PhDs get to count as doing philosophy. So, false dilemma, but if I had to choose I would err toward being very inclusive about what counts as philosophical.
AG: I’m definitely happier with the idea that comedians count as philosophers than I am with the idea that philosophers count as comedians, given what passes for funny in philosophical writing. What’s your take on comedy? How does comedy help with dealing with the problems of life?
KS: Well, I like comedy of all forms. I love stand-up in particular. But I do especially love the comic mode of whistling in the dark. There’s an ability to transform what is terrible into something else by joking about it. There’s an amazing book called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (2013), written by Otto Dov Kulka, about a guy who was, as a child, in Auschwitz. In one of the chapters, he talks about some of the jokes that they told. For example, that the way to escape from Auschwitz was through the smokestacks. That was a joke that was told to him in Auschwitz by other people there. I didn’t try to land it as a joke because it would have felt obscene for me to do that in this context. But there’s something very profound about the fact that people were telling jokes in that circumstance. I don’t know quite what to do with that, but one of my ideas for another book project is something about comedy, and stand-up comedy in particular, and trying to get closer to understanding what it is that humor does that feels to me not just distracting but a deep engagement even with the most difficult things in life. Those are the moments of comedy that I most feel are sublime and kind of overwhelming.
AG: I think we would all look forward to seeing what you have to say about that. I’m sorry to those whose questions we haven’t got to, but maybe we’ll just finish with this last one because it’s fun: Kieran, do you think that life is absurd?
KS: Well, this is the spoiler alert. In Chapter Six of the book I reveal the meaning of life, or I tell you how I think life might not be absurd. But the answer is, I think whether life is absurd or not depends on what we collectively do to make human existence as a whole make sense. Right now we’re not doing a great job, but hope springs eternal, and maybe we will turn things around and create a satisfying story of life’s meaning out of human history.